Fran Brill Week: Beyond the Street

Published: November 18, 2014
Categories: Feature

Join us for a week-long celebration of Muppet performer Fran Brill!  Fran recently announced her retirement from performing, so we’re dedicating a week’s worth of articles to her colorful career with Sesame Street and the Muppets.

When Fran Brill’s retirement was announced, it seems like everyone, including myself, gave thought to the characters she performed on Sesame Street, like Prairie Dawn and Zoe. But being one of the early people to join Jim Henson’s cabal of Muppet performers, Brill has a history that goes far beyond Sesame. In honor of Fran Brill’s retirement, ToughPigs is proud to present the history of Brill’s work with the Muppets, without all those pesky Sesame Street characters getting in the way.

Santaclausswitch1The Great Santa Claus Switch (1970)

Believe it or not, while Brill has had a prolific run on Sesame Street, it wasn’t the project Brill was originally brought into the Muppet family for. Rather, it was The Great Santa Claus Switch, one of Henson’s earliest Muppet specials. As the story goes, Brill answered an ad put out by Henson in 1970, thinking it was for a voiceover job. Instead, it was intended for puppeteers, but Henson saw Brill’s performance instincts, and put her in his two-week puppetry workshop so that she could do the job. Brill wasn’t the only Muppet performer to make their debut with The Great Santa Claus Switch; another performer selected for the workshop was a young man named Richard Hunt, who would later take over a Muppet originally performed by Brill that would become one of his signature characters.

BirdsintheTreesThe Muppet Show: Sex and Violence (1975)

While The Muppets Valentine Show was the first pilot created for The Muppet Show, it was Sex and Violence that would prove to be much more like the show as we know it. A madcap look behind the scenes of a struggling variety show, Sex and Violence featured some of the characters we would come to love. Brill, like her colleagues, performed several characters in the half-hour special, including both Ohreally and Youknow Birds in “The Birds in the Trees,” Pink Stalk (aka Xomfey) in “Aggression,” the voice of the show’s receptionist, Leafy Green Vegetables (who mistakenly arrives at the Seven Deadly Sins pageant instead of her intended destination, a pageant for the Seven Basic Foods), a Whatnot in the “At the Dance Segment,” and Janice in the debut of Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem. Brill would also perform Janice in the Muppet Meeting Films also released in 1975, as well as in the Paul Williams episode of The Muppet Show the following year. Janice wouldn’t have a consistent performer until the second season of The Muppet Show, when Richard Hunt took over the role full-time from Eren Ozker, and the rest, as they say, is like, history, fer sure.

VazhSaturday Night Live (1975)

While Henson was struggling to get The Muppet Show picked up, he found another way to show that the Muppets weren’t just “kids’ stuff” by creating “The Land of Gorch” for a new show called NBC’s Saturday Night, which would later become Saturday Night Live. Brill performed Vazh, King Ploobis’ servant and mistress. Vazh was one of the lesser-used characters, and when she was onscreen, it wasn’t for very long. Sadly, that same description could almost be used for “The Land of Gorch” itself. Saturday Night Live writers hated writing to the Muppets’ style of humor, and once Henson had an agreement in place to make The Muppet Show, the segments were scrapped after one season. But hey, it’s not like anyone’s really heard of Saturday Night Live, right?

The Muppet Show (1976)

When viewing the first season of The Muppet Show, it’s pretty obvious that the powers in charge were still tinkering with the show even after the pilot episodes. Bits were added and replaced, but more importantly, the troupe of Muppet performers would evolve. Brill’s involvement was limited, performing in only two episodes: the aforementioned Paul Williams episode and the following one with guest star Charles Aznavour. In the Paul Williams episode, Brill performed Janice in “Silence” and Mary Louise in the UK spot, “I’m in Love with a Big Blue Frog,” while she performed the “pretty” form of a Whatnot monster in “I Feel Pretty” for the Charles Aznavour episode. Sadly, once the roster of Muppet performers was finally solidified, Brill wasn’t on it anymore, but she was always part of the Muppet family through her continual work on Sesame Street.

Character.vicky-jhhThe Jim Henson Hour (1989)

As Henson’s television presence expanded, he would often use new projects to show off new and veteran puppeteers that hadn’t had their moment in the limelight yet. Unlike The Muppet Show, the core group of puppeteers was set almost immediately, and Brill had made the cut. The Jim Henson Hour would utilize Brill’s vast range as an actor as she performed an equally vast range of characters. Perhaps her most-used character was Vicki, a film school graduate who grew up loving the Muppets and saw Kermit as an inspiration. (Might there have been a Walter before Walter?) On the other end of the spectrum was Zondra, the leader of Gorilla Television, who hated popular TV (including the Muppets). She would hijack the MuppeTelevision broadcast to run alternative programming and admonish the viewer for being a “slave” to television. Coincidentally, the same puppet model as Zondra was used for the drummer for MuppeTelevision’s house band, Solid Foam, who Brill would also perform. She would also perform auxiliary characters through the show’s run, such as Merlin’s (aka Rowlf’s) assistant from “Merlin the Magician, MD,” and Darlene (better known as Maxine, a frequently seen purple Whatnot that has been in a number of Muppet productions, including The Muppets Celebrate Jim Henson and It’s A Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie) during the “Monster Telethon” segment of the “Power” episode, and Colleen Barker, Ace Yu’s girlfriend in Dog City. This role eventually led to…

Dogcity-ColleenDog City (1992-1995)

Three years after The Jim Henson Hour’s cancellation, viewers returned to Dog City in the form of a hybrid puppet/cartoon series. The puppet segments dealt with the life of Eliot Shag, a canine writer and animator who creates the world of Ace Hart, the star of the animated portion. Brill returned to her role as Colleen Barker, retooled to be Shag’s neighbor and sometimes girlfriend. After the first season, Colleen was dropped from the show, with the onscreen explanation that she moved away, but Brill stayed on, now performing Terri Springer, the single mother of Artie, Eliot’s neighbor and biggest fan. Like Colleen, Terri would become Eliot’s love interest, but this time, she was also trying to keep Artie’s best interests at arf heart. Sorry, since I’m taking about Dog City, I tried to end with a dog joke. Guess I’m in the doghouse now. Okay, sorry, I’ll stop.

PorcupineBilly Bunny’s Animal Songs (1993)

After Jim Henson’s untimely passing in 1990, the Muppet crew was determined to forge ahead with planned projects and welcome new characters and stories. The first such project was Billy Bunny’s Animal Songs, the first in a line of Muppet Sing-Alongs videos. The video starred Billy Bunny (I know, I was surprised too), a lively rabbit who loves to sing the one song he knows. His family, which is tired of hearing the same song over and over, sends Billy out to explore the forest, and learn from the creatures that call it home. Brill performed a member of a family of frogs, who sing “Frog Talk,” which is about talking in frog. (Will the twists and turns never end?) Brill also performed the Porcupine, an entertainer who sings and plays the saxophone in the song “Please Don’t Bump into Me.” In a bittersweet way of coming full-circle, this would be one the final projects to feature Richard Hunt, who joined the Muppet family from the same audition that brought in Fran Brill.

I realize this might seem like a light resume, but considering her constant presence on Sesame Street as well as an acting career outside of her puppetry work, I think this is pretty impressive. So next time, when you think about Fran Brill’s time with the Muppets (as I’m sure most ToughPigs readers do from time to time), be sure to remember her time off of the Street. Without her, the Muppets wouldn’t be quite the same.

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by Matthew Soberman

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